We don’t hear much about heroes today. Perhaps folks are too jaded and cynical to think that there are public figures worthy of our admiration for their character, their accomplishments, and for their contributions to humanity. Heroes are those who step up to challenges. They don’t back down in the face of struggle or difficulty. They inspire others. They do the right thing even when it costs something. They are folks who are not so much “me” centered as “we” centered. They are people who give us something to aspire to; folks whom you want your kids to admire and emulate.
I have four heroes, individuals whom I admire and desire to emulate. Let me tell you about them and why they inspire me. They are not anti-heroes, self-centered rebels, or quintessential lone-rangers. Instead, they are individuals of great accomplishment and character who see their contributions as beneficial for others.
As a young boy growing up in San Francisco, baseball was my first love and the San Francisco Giants were my team. I remember my first major league game on July 29, 1959 when I got to see my first hero, Willie Mays, warm up right in front of me before the Giants played the St. Louis Cardinals. (Stan Musial was in the twilight of his career and in the starting lineup for the Redbirds that day.) Willie Mays was not only my hero; he was a hero to every boy my age who followed the Giants. I learned to read the newspaper by following his stat line every day in the box score and reading the San Francisco Examiner sports section as they described his play.
What I loved about Willie Mays is that he played baseball with such great joy, the joy that comes when men and women get to play a kids game and make a living doing it. As a child, I loved not only his exploits on the field, but the things he did to make San Francisco a better place to live, especially for children.
Later on as an adult, Willie Mays remained one of my heroes for very different reasons. I became aware that as an African American growing up in segregated Birmingham, AL (the place where Bull Conner turned his dogs loose against children in 1963), Willie Mays was not afforded the opportunities that were given to white children. In fact, if he would have been ten years older, he would never had played in the major leagues no matter how good a player he was. Even in San Francisco, he experienced the sting of racism when he tried to buy a home and a number of whites in the neighborhood objected to his presence. His life was difficult (especially when his second wife contracted early-onset Alzheimer’s and he focused on her care). But he rarely complained and today at age 89, he is still employed as a good-will ambassador for the Giants. Definitely a good selection for my childhood hero.
My Christian faith reached a crossroads in college and during my sophomore year, I wondered whether Christianity could stand up to the intellectual challenges I found as I studied philosophy and mathematics. The Jesus Movement was at its peak and I had come through a “Pentecostal” phase that had lasted a couple of years but now seemed intellectually bankrupt. I can’t remember who, but someone handed me a little book by a British guy titled Your Mind Matters which I read between calculus assignments and Plato. It was a series of lectures he had given to a group of college students and as I read, I discovered that he was addressing my questions, my qualms, my concerns.
That British guy was John Stott whom I discovered knew the Bible better than anyone I had ever read or heard. Not only did he know the Bible, he was able to explain the Christian faith in ways that were intellectually credible for college and university students and for people like me who enjoyed asking hard questions. There was never a question that John Stott was afraid to answer.
I started devouring more of Stott’s work and twelve years after I graduated, he published his magnum opus titled The Cross of Christ, an amazing work that captures the essence of the Christian gospel. It wasn’t just his books, but his Christian character and his public ministry. What I saw in John Stott was an integration of mind and heart (of intellect and affections) that refused to reduce Christian faith to a cold intellectual/doctrinal framework, or to the continual seeking after emotional highs where people lived for experiences that were often times walled off from life.
John Stott became my second hero in life. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet him personally in the 1980s and hear him lecture on preaching. I’ve been blessed by the fruit of his ministry and his passion for both evangelism and social concern. Unlike so many “celebrity” Christians, John Stott never desired attention. I think heroes are folks who give us examples to which we can aspire, and John Stott, even though he died several years ago, remains that kind of hero for me, even today.
In 1968, a relatively young man left a good job working at a Ford factory outside of Los Angeles and took his wife and children to a small town south of Jackson, Mississippi with what seemed like a crazy dream–bringing the Christian faith to poor and disenfranchised people who had suffered the brutality of Jim Crow. His message was far more than talk, though proclaiming Christ was certainly at its center. He believed that Christ wanted not only to bring the gospel to Mendenhall, Mississippi but that the Lord wanted to lift its African American citizens out of poverty and help them claim their full rights and privileges as American citizens, especially the right to vote.
Perkins’s activities drew attention, not all of it good. In August 1970, he was stopped and arrested by Brandon county sheriff’s deputies, taken to the county jail, and beaten nearly to death that night. I heard him describe that night years later at a Fuller Seminary chapel. And I asked him about what he had learned that night when I had opportunity to interview him in 1992 for the Advent Christian Witness. (He describes this night in his first book, Let Justice Roll Down.) John Perkins came from a non-religious family with little use for Church. It was not until he had fled Mississippi the first time in the 1950s for a good job in the Los Angeles auto factories that he first heard the gospel at the little Baptist church where his daughter went to Sunday School. I wondered if he ever imagined that in turning his life over to Christ, God would call him back to Mississippi to suffer on behalf of Christ.
After hearing him in that Fuller Seminary chapel service, John Perkins became another one of my heroes; not so much because he suffered as I’ve met many who have suffered for Christ in one way or another. But what set John Perkins apart was how he came to love others, even those who brutalized him in that county jail and even white folks like me who had little clue of the deep harm that so many African American families had suffered because of segregation and Jim Crow. Loving others did not mean excusing their sin, and even today at nearly 90 years old he’s still active in community development and in fostering justice and reconciliation among Christians in society. If John Perkins could love those who harmed him and act to reconcile others to Christ and to each other, that was something to which I wanted to aspire. (And yes, I still have ways to go.)
Bonhoeffer was only a name to me until in one of my first seminary classes, I was assigned his little book Life Together. This short little book described a small theological school that Bonhoeffer established in 1937 in Finkenwald, Germany as the Nazi regime strengthened its grip on the German church and German society. Three years earlier, the Nazi’s had added the so-called “Aryan Paragraph” to German law. The law forbid any person of Jewish ancestry from being a pastor in the German state church and from holding a government position in Germany. A sizable group of pastors and laypeople disagreed and organized the “confessing church,” in opposition to Hitler and the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth were prominent voices among the confessing church. Barth was responsible for the Barmen Declaration and Bonhoeffer was asked to organize a school to train pastors for the confessing church.
Before the rise of Hitler, both Bonhoeffer and Barth had been part of a reaction to the rise of German theological liberalism that dominated German theological schools and had minimized the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Both had studied under Willhelm Herrmann, the most prominent individual in the German theological establishment, and both ultimately rejected his theology and argued for an approach that viewed Holy Scripture as central to the life of the church. Both advocated a “Christocentric” approach seen in Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer also spent 1931 in New York City worshipping and teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist Church, at the time the most prominent African American congregation in the United States. His time there allowed him to grasp what it was like for marginalized people in society, and left little doubt in Bonhoeffer’s mind what he must do when the scourge of anti-Semitic totalitarianism struck his own country.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer abhorred war and violence and considered himself a pacifist. Because of that, he faced one of the great moral challenges of the 20th century when given opportunity to be part of a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. His response was that in a world plagued by what Genesis 3 describes as the fall of humanity, there were times when we face flawed choices and therefore his task as a Christian was to “drive a spoke in the wheel” of the Nazi machine. The plot failed; Bonhoeffer and his allies were arrested, and he was killed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945 three weeks before the Allies liberated the Flossenberg concentration camp. Christ had bid him to “come and die” on His behalf.
So Dietrich Bonhoeffer became my fourth hero because he was willing to say “no” to evil when an entire society said “yes.” He was willing to say “no” when that same society declared Jewish people to be “other” and unleased unspeakable violence against its neighbors. He was willing to say “no” in the name of Christ when so many in the Deutsche Christen chose Hitler over Christ. I think that Bonhoeffer’s example frames my suspicion of anything that smacks of political authoritarianism– worship or veneration of “the leader,” marginalization of people because of their ethnicity or race or religion, and the use of money as a tool of political power. I want to learn more about how to live with Bonhoeffer’s courage.
Heroes are human
My four heroes are far from perfect. When you read about their lives, you discover that they never pretend to be perfect. They’ve all made their share of mistakes and misjudgments and they are comfortable with naming those. They are OK with their humanity. At the same time, they don’t let their mistakes stop them from living with integrity and to paraphrase Rick Warren, they recognize that “it’s not about them.”
Do you have any heroes? Think about that question. Whom do you admire and why? What is it about your heroes that inspires you to live in Christ-like ways? You don’t need too many heroes. In fact, having too many defeats the purpose. Moreover, do your heroes point you to Christ; the One who is our greatest hero, the One who took on human form, lived among us, suffered and died on our behalf, who was raised to life, and who lives today to draw you and me into vital relationship with our Creator.
I would love to read about your heroes. Post a response and let me know about your heroes, public figures whom you admire in church and in society.
There are numerous books written about the four individuals about whom I have written. For Willie Mays, read 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say-Hey Kid by John Shea and Willie Mays (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best biography is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). There are several excellent books written by and about John Perkins. Start with Let Justice Roll Down, his first book republished by Baker Books in 2012. Then read Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (Baker, 2018). John Stott has published many works including the two that I have mentioned above. The best short biography is Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott by Roger Steer (InterVarsity, 2010).